OVC spring football outlook

(STATS) - Jacksonville State hasn't lost an Ohio Valley Conference game in three straight seasons, but the teams behind the Gamecocks sense an opportunity this year.

Few teams in the FCS must fill a bigger hole than the Gamecocks' loss of quarterback Eli Jenkins, a 3 1/2-year starter.

"Jacksonville State has been just a cut above the last couple years," said coach Rod Reed of Tennessee State, one of the other contenders.

"I think Eli Jenkins has been a big X-factor. They have some great players over there - guys on that D-line, and things of that nature - and everybody's recruiting to that benchmark now. I have to get the same kind of guys that coach (John) Grass has over there. Six years ago, coach Grass told me he had to get the same kind of guys that I had because we beat him a couple times. The league, it flips and it changes."

Following is a look across the OVC with spring practices underway in college football:

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AUSTIN PEAY=

Head Coach: Will Healy (0-11, one season)

2016 Records: 0-11, 0-8 OVC

Spring Practices: Completed

What to Know: After back-to-back 0-11 seasons, the Governors are looking for something new, so they held early spring practices under Healy, who enters his second campaign. The losses don't reflect it, but the Govenors' offense was among the most improved in the FCS. Two freshmen, quarterback JaVaughn Craig and tailback Kentel Williams, spearheaded a new up-tempo scheme as the offense moves forward. The defense was another story because the Govs couldn't stop the run and wound up allowing 47 points and 506.6 yards per game. Middle linebacker Gunnar Scholato, the team's leading tackler, returns as a leader. Healy needs to keep having his recruiting classes pay off.

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EASTERN ILLINOIS=

Head Coach: Kim Dameron (18-17, three seasons)

2016 Records: 6-5, 4-4 OVC

Spring Practices: March 21-April 22

What to Know: Quarterback Mitch Kimble had an excellent, though injured-shortened first season with the Panthers and is one of seven returning starters on offense. But the Panthers are tasked with replacing running back Devin Church, their leading rusher, receiver and scorer. The battle for his vacated position is the key storyline this spring along with replacing middle linebacker Seth McDonald, the team's other first-team All-OVC standout. The offensive line returns four starters and is a strength. It's been a mediocre three seasons under Dameron, but his early recruits are becoming upperclassmen. They expect progress.

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EASTERN KENTUCKY=

Head Coach: Mark Elder (3-8, one season)

2016 Records: 3-8, 2-6 OVC

Spring Practices: March 6-April 15

What to Know: Last season's drop-off was stunning considering the Colonels had been below .500 only once (5-6 in 2009) since 1973. Their unsettled quarterback position defined the season, and Bennie Coney, Tyler Swafford and Maty Mauk are all gone. Tim Boyle, a UConn transfer, is favored to enter the 2017 season as the starter. The offense returns six starters and the defense seven. The other key position battles are on the offensive and defensive lines. Defensive lineman Aaron Patrick made the All-OVC first team, but isn't returning. A Sept. 9 visit to Kentucky will reunite the Colonels with former head coach Dean Hood, now a Wildcats assistant.

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JACKSONVILLE STATE=

Head Coach: John Grass (33-6, three seasons)

2016 Records: 10-2, 7-0 OVC

Spring Practices: March 7-April 13

What to Know: Will the Gamecocks come back to the pack is the big question now that quarterback Eli Jenkins is out of eligibility. Bryant Horn, who was No. 2 on the depth chart last season before he broke his arm in the playoffs, would appear to have a slight edge over Kendrick Doss. The Gamecocks also are replacing Josh Barge, their all-time leading receiver, but they return standout running back Roc Thomas. The defense ranked fourth in the FCS last season and returns eight starters, including the conference's defensive player of the year (defensive end Darius Jackson) and freshman of the year (free safety Marlon Bridges). The kicking game needs improvement this year.

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MURRAY STATE=

Head Coach: Mitch Stewart (7-15, two seasons)

2016 Records: 4-7, 4-4 OVC

Spring Practices: April 1-28

What to Know: The offense returns all but one starter, but it's a huge loss - three-year starting quarterback KD Humphries. The Racers have seven quarterbacks on their roster, with the competition likely centered around Cam Birse and newcomers Shuler Bentley (an Old Dominion transfer), Preston Rice and Corey Newble (who could move to wide receiver after arriving this summer). Regardless, the new signal caller will have weapons in the deep skills positions. The defense has to improve after the Racers allowed over 35 points per game, but it returns nine starters. Improvement on both the offensive and defensive lines is pivotal.

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SOUTHEAST MISSOURI STATE=

Head Coach: Tom Matukewicz (12-22, three seasons; 13-22 overall)

2016 Records: 3-8, 3-5 OVC

Spring Practices: March 7-April 13

What to Know: The Redhawks return only nine starters (five on offense and four on defense). The defense was solid last season, so it hopes to have built some depth to pair with All-OVC linebacker Chad Meredith. Senior quarterback Jesse Hosket is returning to the lineup, but the offense has to replace running back Will Young, likely with Eddie Morris, Cameron Sanders or Chase Abbington. The Redhawks scored a conference-low 20.8 points, which led to a handful of close losses.

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TENNESSEE STATE=

Head Coach: Rod Reed (43-37, seven seasons)

2016 Records: 7-4, 4-3 OVC

Spring Practices: March 6-April 8

What to Know: After an excellent season, the Tigers are the dark horse in the conference race. They return 18 starters - nine on each side of the ball - and most of the specialists. Reed has brought in Florida transfer quarterback Treon Harris to pair with O'Shay Ackerman-Carter, who will be used sparingly in spring practices due to his recovery from a torn ACL. On the strong offense, touted running back Arkeem Granger is still coming back from an injury last spring and should be No. 2 behind Erick Evans. The injury bug also bit the defense last year, so depth is a focus area. Nine members of the defensive front return, including star end Ebenezer Ogundeko, who missed three-plus games as a junior.

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TENNESSEE TECH=

Head Coach: Marcus Satterfield (5-6, one season)

2016 Records: 5-6, 5-3 OVC

Spring Practices: Feb. 14-March 23

What to Know: After a third-place finish in Satterfield's first season, the Golden Eagles are hoping a challenging non-conference schedule will keep them strong in the OVC because they are replacing seven offensive starters this season. Quarterbacks Colby Brown and Andre Sale have taken snaps during spring practices, but former Rutgers signal caller Hayden Rettig will join the competition this summer. While boundary corner Maleek Hall is a big loss, the defense is still the team's strength. Second-team All-OVC pick Josh Poplar, a linebacker, headlines the eight returning starters.

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UT MARTIN=

Head Coach: Jason Simpson (72-54, 11 seasons)

2016 Records: 7-5, 6-2 OVC

Spring Practices: March 21-April 15

What to Know: The Skyhawks challenged for the OVC title and a FCS playoff bid, but fell short in a 2016 season in which they lost to three FBS opponents (a game at Hawaii provided a 12-game regular season). They return 15 starters (eight on offense and seven on defense) and will get excellent production and senior leadership from quarterback Troy Cook and safety Kahlid Hagens. Two big goals of the spring are replacing two starters at wide receiver and on the defensive line. Transfers usually make an impact for Simpson's teams.

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